What is Happening in Cozumel-Update February 2020

Notice Regarding the 2019 Temporary Partial Closure of the Cozumel Marine Park

(As of December 15, 2019, the closure was revoked, but may be reinstated by the Cozumel Marine Park)

There was a  partial closure of the Southern Reefs at the island of Cozumel that became effective on October 7, 2019. To clarify the situation, a group led by the Cozumel National Marine Park and several environmental groups, initiated a two-month closure of the reefs from The Palancar Pier south from October 7th to December 15th, 2019, to give these reefs a bit of a rest. Many of the hard corals around the island were infected by diseases called Stony Coral Tissue Loss, SCTL, and White Band Disease, which were first observed in the Miami area back in 2014. The scientists who have been studying these diseases believe that their source is untreated effluent (or liquid waste) from Resorts and/or Cruise Lines. One of the main reasons for the closure was to bring attention to the seriousness of the problem.   

In a joint action taken by the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), and The Advisory Counsel of the Reefs of Cozumel National Park, it was decided that there would be a temporary closure of the Southern part of the Cozumel Marine Park from the Palancar pier south. It was determined that this closure would take effect on October 7, 2019 and continue through December 15, 2019. The stated reason for the temporary suspension of diving and snorkeling activities in this area was to give the reefs some time to recover.

The background story is that by the end of 2018, Cozumel’s coral reefs had seen a huge decline. Hard corals were infected by diseases called Stony Coral Tissue Loss, SCTL, and White Band Disease. White Band Disease gets its name from the white bands of dead coral tissue that it forms. Neither of these should be confused with coral bleaching, which is something entirely different. The suspected bacterial infections spread rapidly killing many species of hard corals.  ‘Healthy Reefs,’ a group that tracks the health of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, stated that the effect of the disease was “unprecedented” as mortality rates were very high and around 30 different types of hard corals were deemed to be susceptible to it, including brain corals, pillar corals, flower corals and star corals, to name a few.

Among the particularly troubling aspects of this disease outbreak was that the diseases had affected more than one half of reef-building hard coral species. It had also spread quickly and had a high mortality rate among affected hard corals. The scientific community seemed to believe that the disease is transmitted primarily through the water column, but speculated that it could also be transmitted by contact. (*Information provided by the Florida Disease Advisory Committee and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.)

 

The first sighting of the destruction of these types of corals was in the Miami area in 2014. In Mexico, it was first seen at Puerto Morelos, 45 kilometers south of Cancún, and it made its way to the reefs off Cozumel in early 2018. By late 2018 and early 2019, the disease had spread throughout Pompano Beach, Palm Beach, the Upper Florida Keys, and to parts of the Caribbean including, Jamaica, Saint Maarten, the US Virgin Islands, the Mexican Caribbean, the Dominican Republic, Saint Thomas and Honduras.

 

The exact cause and source of the disease is still unknown, but scientists believe that it is linked to pollution and possibly the presence of seaweed such as sargassum in seawater. The phenomenon occurs as a result of pollutants (and possibly rising water temperatures), which cause the coral polyps to expel the algae on which they feed, and that live in their tissues. The tissues then disconnect from the coral skeleton, the animals die and the reef loses its color. Researchers are still without solutions to the problem, although the state is working on a massive project, replenishing damaged reefs with laboratory-grown coral. In a couple of areas in the Western Caribbean, (namely along the coastline of the Mexican mainland and in Honduras) there is an effort underway, to replant hundreds of thousands of ‘lab-grown’ corals on the reef. The goal of the project, which began in 2017, is to re-establish healthy corals, hoping that water treatment efforts will minimize the presence of pollution, the probable source of the bacterium.

The Cozumel Marine Park had acknowledged that cruise ships and the mismanagement of waste at coastal hotels in and around the marine park were amongst the most likely causes for the spread of the disease. Although the causal agent of the bacteria is still not clear, most scientists think that the bacteria had evolved from pollution (untreated effluent) dumped in the ocean by Cruise Ships and Resorts. The action taken to close Cozumel’s southern reefs to divers for a two-month period of time in 2019 had done so for two reasons. First, the Park wanted to slow one potential cause of the spread of the bacteria, which was physical touching of the coral by divers.  It was reported that Studies had shown that during an average 4-hour period on any given day of the week, there were as many as 2,000 touches by divers in the southern reef area. Second, and perhaps the more important reason, was that the closure would create an awareness of the problems that the reefs in Cozumel were and are facing.

Author’s observations: Many people want to know why the partial closure was ordered and why the partial closure was only for the Southern Reefs (Palancar, Columbia, Chun Chacaab, Maracaibo, Punta Sur, and Cielo). I had spent quite a bit of time in 2019 diving in Cozumel, as well as other nearby destinations such as the Bay Islands on Honduras. In 2019, I observed a lot of SCTLD or “White Band” disease in many areas of Cozumel and the Bay Islands of Honduras. The areas of Cozumel that were affected by the disease ere certainly not limited to the Southern Reefs.

There are new regulations require that the Hotels and Beach Clubs must install water treatment equipment. This is certainly a good thing. It also reported at this time that regulations require Cruise Ship lines to treat their effluent (Liquid waste) before dumping it in the ocean. This is extremely important because this is the most likely source of the bacterium that had attacked the corals. Obviously, sewage treatment is very expensive, but this step is an integral part of the long-term solution.

Based on a study that was undertaken at the request of the Mexican authorities by the German Agency for International Cooperation, there were findings that 1) the Marine Park gets 1.8 million foreign visitors per year and 2) that the average visitor would be happy to pay Three Thousand and Fifty-Two Pesos (US$155.00) per person for use of the Marine Park. There is some indication that the Park is considering the imposition of new use fees on tourists. Most of these visitors to the Marine Park would include tourists who come to Cozumel off of the Cruise Ships for just a few hours and a lesser number of tourists who come to Cozumel specifically to dive. I would speculate that, in reality, a very small percentage of the cruise ship tourists, if any, who were told that they would have to pay $155 to dive or snorkel for a few hours during their one day stay on the island would actually choose to use the Park at such a cost.

A more difficult question would be how potential dive tourists would react to a substantial increase of the use fees they are already paying to use the Marine Park. Cozumel is a wonderful dive destination that offers incredible encounters with beautiful and unique marine Life. However, one of the considerations for many of the divers who come to Cozumel have chosen Cozumel rather than other destinations because it is less expensive.

 

The Dive Sites that had been subject to the 2019 partial closure.

The dive sites that were closed in Cozumel were all dive sites from the Palancar Pier, South including:

  • All of the Palancar dive sites
  • Colombia
  • Punta Sur
  • El Cielo

Final Thoughts

Multiple meetings have been announced to examine the details of the 2019 closure and the effect that the closure has had on tour operators that are concerned about the backlash and economic impacts that the closure  had and the future of the State of Cozumel’s coral reefs. There have been discussions that indicate that if the closures are re-instated in the future, there may be  a rotation of the closures throughout various areas of the Marine Park.

Many marine-park business permit holders have asked to have a PROFEPA office in Cozumel that can police the marine park and keep out the many illegal dive and snorkel operators as well as illegal fishing that occurs daily within the marine park. PROFEPA is the institution in charge of formulating and conducting the inspection and surveillance policy on the conservation and protection of aquatic species at risk and of protected natural areas that include coastal and marine ecosystems.

 

Finally, Cozumel has much to offer for visiting divers. It is an excellent destination that offers much to see and experience. There are countless groups that are working hard to address the many issues that the world’s oceans face from population pressures.  I, for one, am confident that Cozumel will remain one of the top destinations in the Caribbean for visiting tourists and I will not hesitate to bring groups of divers to Cozumel to experience the beauty and excitement of this great dive destination.

 

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